Round Jeffrey. “Shadow Puppet: A Dan Sharp Mystery”, Dundrun Books, 2019.
Three Missing Gay Men
Many of you will remember Dan Sharp mysteries by Jeffrey Round. In this new book, “Shadow Puppet”, Sharp is investigating the disappearance of three closeted gay men, He discovers something in common between the missing men but the police do not seem to want to investigate it. Sharp realizes his suspicions about the police force during a meeting with the chief of Toronto police so enlists a group of his friends to help find out what is happening in the city’s sex trade. I believe that what makes Jeffrey Round’s stories so interesting is that he explores the nature of human relationships as they affect or are affected by place, character and circumstance. In this case, we become very aware that homophobia prevents the investigation of crime.
There were rumors circulating in Toronto’s LGBT community about the disappearances of gay men and it is common knowledge, it seems, that three gay men had vanished. There was a sense of fear that there might be others. The missing men lived alone and as did have family ties and this is about all that we can tell they shared in common. connection to their families. The police were not interested in these disappearances until a famous openly gay cancer researcher was found stabbed to dead in the same neighborhood where the others went missing. Playing it down, he police investigated the possibility of a simple robbery gone wrong and considers a homophobic hate crime as a second choice and so Dan Sharp, a missing persons investigator, stepped in when two Moslem men hired him to find their missing brother Nabil, who disappeared some days earlier. The brothers discovered that Nabil was gay when they searched through his private things looking to find any information about his disappearance. We get a look here at how Moslems see homosexuality. As Dan investigated, he found himself involved with in the local sex industry.
Dan remains dedicated to finding out the truth about the disappearing men and he suspects that the men are all Moslems might have something to do with their demises.
Dan is worried that a serial killer might be targeting the LGBT community. He is assisted by his friends in looking for the missing men. He learned that Nabil was scheduled to enter a Leatherman contest but never showed up. He also found some leads and clues on Nabil’s computer and his search took him places of danger in the criminal world and a pornographer filming and probably torturing porn stars.
Pravin, a friend of Dan’s sets himself up to be a decoy in the hopes of coaxing the killer to come forward and this puts him in danger. Domingo and Donny as well as Pravin, Dan’s closest friends, help him in the investigation. In a very tense conclusion, Dan realizes that he had met the killer before. We get a real sense of alienation as we read about the marginalized members of the gay community. Dan discovers, pure evil exists and there is nothing banal about it. The story is quite tense and it really keeps us turning pages as quickly as possible. Round is a terrific writer and his characters are well drawn; at times we feel as we know them.
Reardon, Robin. “On Chocorua”, Book One in the Trailblazer Series, Robin Reardon, 2019.
From College to the World
I became a Robin Reardon fan some eight books ago when she was then publishing with Kensington books. There was something about her writing that pulled me in immediately and her plots were exactly what was needed. When Reardon began writing there was most definitely a dearth of LGBTQ literature for young readers. I really believe that she was partly responsible for that changing. Reardon’s voice could speak to the entire nation and perhaps one day it will. We are finally seeing acceptance of the LGBTQ community and with that things are constantly changing.
With the publication of Reardon’s ninth book, we have a beginning to the three volume series, “Trailblazer”. The books are centered around Nathan Bartlett and follow him through his freshman year in college to his early twenties as he does what all of us have had to do— find our way. I think that for many of us, the quest to know who we are is never ending. We often forget that our futures depend upon our pasts.
Nathan faces detours in his journeys including addictions that hamper his way. Being a trailblazer usually means doing something ahead of others and preparing the path so that others will be able to walk on it. Nathan becomes an explorer who sometimes finds himself at dead ends—- he forgets that the ending is not always the goal but the way to the ending is what is important. To make important choices, we must know ourselves and not knowing makes the road that much more difficult. I often wonder if we ever grow up completely. Life is not about answers but about the questions. Reardon describes Nathan as a trailblazer because he dares to explore himself and who he is and to do that he has had to muster up courage and a willingness to stick with it until he is content. It would certainly be much easier for him to use someone else’s path but doing so could push him out of the picture and he would become just a number of one who tried. This is his journey and for it to remain his, he must forge his own way.
Chocorua is Nathan’s metaphor. During the first year of college, we have the power to really be who we want to me if we know who that is. Nathan does not use the best judgment when he acts and he learns from that. There were moments when I wanted to reach out to him and make him feel loved and there were times when I was ready to use every four letter word I know on him. I almost caught myself yelling at him when he fell in love with someone because he looked like his own brother and was straight, I became very angry when he ventured into the world of addiction and I really thought that he had lost it when he decided to climb a mountain regardless of the awful weather conditions. But then again, haven’t we all done things that are just as crazy ?
Nathan was strong enough to deal with his personal demons head on by recognizing that for many questions there are no easy answers. Very few of us have our lives handed to us so, like Nathan, we have to struggle and even suffer for what we feel is important. I really loved being with Nathan on his journey and I am especially glad that it was Robin Reardon who wrote the wonderful text. Each of her books has tackled some aspect of LGBT life that can be problematic and while she does not have all the answers, she gives us options to think about. Reardon is the kid of writer whose words stay with you long after the read is over. For me that is one of the definitions of good literature. Nathan’s journey is a collective journey with room for all of us to become a part of. We might not realize it but by reading this book, we are learning a lot about who we really are.
I have had the pleasure of meeting and having coffee with writer Reardon and she is as terrific of a person as she is as a writer. However, I do hate having to wait for the next two books. I am very aware that I have not shared much of the plot with you and that is because I want all of us to be on this journey and to tell about it might spoil the experience.
Picano, Felice. “Justify My Sins”, Beautiful Dreamer Press, 2019.
The Business of Making Films
I have been reading Felice Picano all of my gay life and that seems forever so I was surprised to learn that this is his first novel in fifteen years. I guess that Picano had written so much that I did not notice that there was a gap in time. The good thing is that I am now up to date.
If this was a book of nonfiction, I suppose we could say that it is a Hollywood expose. However, it is fiction and I learned long ago that all fiction carries some truth—we just have to figure it out. Victor Regina is a writer in New York City and everything is going his way. His literary output has strong support and his books sell. His agent pushes his work and Victor is looking forward to the next big circuit party. The Black Party is being held at the very exclusive Flamingo Club and promises to feature hunky men with large libidos. There is a problem though—winter has overtaken New York and does not seem to be going away and Victor is alone right now even though he has many friends. Victor, we see, wants a partner and a lover. Because it is so cold not many are venturing out the clubs and the chances of meeting someone do not look particularly good.
But there is a sudden ray of sunshine; Victor’s agent calls with an offeror Victor from Hollywood. A famous director wants Victor to write the screenplay based on his latest novel, “Justify My Sins”. Victor of course in anxious to do the job and goes to Los Angeles (or “El Lay” as it is often affectionately known as). Everything seems to be going well— the temperature is almost perfection, the food is divine as are the men. Everything is so good and so easy that Victor wonders if there is anything real about it. Ostentatiousness is everywhere as is insincerity. He even wonders if the job of the screenplay is real or is it just apart of the “I don’t give a damn” atmosphere of the place? Before long Victor yearns for New York.
Now a book about the movies is bound to have some great secrets and big happenings and that is what we read about in this roman à clef with a heart. We explore love vs. lust and compare two major American cities that are known for their gay communities. Picano takes us by the hand and shows us New York in all her grittiness and Los Angeles in all of her showiness and deceit while Victor tries to find a life that is real and makes him feel content. The stops along the way are the real fun but we also see their dangers and lackadaisical sides. We see what Victor doesn’t and that is that he has lived a good life but without justification.
We go inside the business of making movies and see its connection to the gay life on the West coast. The novel is set before the AIDS epidemic cut so much short. There are many good stories woven into the plot and we hear from big stars to the men on the street. Hollywood novels are great fun. Set in the 1970’s when hedonism was a way of life, we get good gossip and a look at Hollywood and its lack of depth. The dialogue is sharp as big names from the 1970s, 80s and 90s deal with pain and pleasure and nothing ever stops. Here is a look at gay desire that we do not usually or often get. I can tell you that you will have either a smile or a grin on your face as you read and this is a must-read. In fact, I just might read it again.
Solomon, Rachel Lynn. “Our Year of Maybe”, Simon Pulse, 2019.
“Our Year of Maybe” is a contemporary young adult novel that examines the complicated aftermath of a kidney transplant between best friends. Aspiring choreographer Sophie Orenstein and Peter Rosenthal-Porter are best friends. Peter has been on the kidney transplant for their entire friendship. Peter is a gifted pianist and he is everything to Sophie—best friend, musical collaborator and secret crush. When she learns she’s a match, donating a kidney is an easy, obvious choice and requires no thought but she wonders if after the transplant, he’ll love her back the way she’s always wanted.
But….. but Peter’s life post-transplant isn’t what either of them expected. Though he once had feelings for Sophie, he’s now drawn to Chase, the guitarist in a band that happens to be looking for a keyboardist. Now knowing that she cannot have Peter, her life begins to move in a different direction. She suddenly has dance opportunities, new friends—a sister and niece she barely knows yet she wants Peter more than ever even though he has grown increasingly distant, and increasingly bitter. He doesn’t seem to feel the same connection.
Peter worries that he’ll forever be indebted to Sophie and she isn’t sure who she is without him. One heartbreaking night tests their relationship and it becomes something neither of them recognizes, leading them to question their past, their future, and whether their friendship is even worth fighting for.
Early on, Peter’s kidney disease left him largely isolated and Sophie was happy to share his world and she was convinced that he was not only her best friend but also the love of her life. Sophie learns that a transplant would allow Peter to fully participate in the world for the first time and since they are a match, Sophie is only too happy to donate a kidney. Peter embraces his new life, joins a band and dates as he figures out if he can or should return Sophie’s feelings. Sophie, of course, is heartbroken to find that his life no longer revolves around her, even as she explores her own talents. They both must decide what life looks like without Peter’s illness at the center, and what Sophie’s donation means to their relationship.
Author Rachel Lynn Solomon wonderfully captures the complicated lives and identities of today’s teens. We see that Sophie and Peter are realistic human beings as are the other characters we meet here including Peter’s boyfriend, Chase, and Sophie’s sister, a teen parent. This is a story of the heart rather than action and the joys and frustrations of discovering oneself are skillfully related here. When relationships change there is no single way they must be. We explore friendship, love, and the bonds that hold us together.
Sophie and Peter are messy, imperfect, and very, very real. We find ourselves in a situation that both elates us and scares us. It is next to impossible not to fall in love with Sophie and Peter and we want them to find their happiness even when that means contradicting each other. They are both selfish and messy but filled with heart. Here is the messiness of friendship and unrequited love filed with emotion causing tears to come easily and I love that we can identify with the characters to that degree.
Carroll. Michael. “Stella Maris: And Other Key West Stories”, Turtle Point Press, 2019.
In the Conch Republic
I love Michael Carroll’s new story collection but I have been hesitant to post my review since it will be out until April. This means that it cannot be read and enjoyed just yet. Nonetheless, something whispered in my ear today to go ahead and write the review and post it to perhaps build up some enthusiasm for the collection of stories. I have a tendency to gush over books that I really like but I am going to restrain myself this time and be a bit conservative even though I want to yell out that I LOVE THIS BOOK.
I also love Key West but it has been many many years since I have been there and I doubt I will get there again anytime soon. Carroll did make me want to reconsider that thought and who knows what may come my way. I would never have dreamt that I would leave the intoxication and magic of New Orleans to live in staid and intellectual Boston but here I am.
What surprised me the most about “Stella Maris” is that I traditionally do not read or like short stories; I just do not enjoy them and I found myself deeply involved in each of Carroll’s eight stories. We enter a different world in Key West and even today it reminds us of how it was when who-was-who mixed with who-was-there and social class and fame held no importance. Key West has always had that mysterious quality of drawing people to her and not letting them go even when they physically depart. And those who depart do so with some Key West within. It has become of “the” places to go to and has been a beacon that brings people in to its bohemian world that still manages to exist. It is a mecca for the LGBT community and it certainly provided Michael Carroll with a home from where to spin these stories. If you know Key West, you can place the stories in their venue without much thought and if you don’t know Key West you can make up venues—it really doesn’t matter. What you do need is grit to go along with the grittiness of what you read here. I had forgotten (just go along with this lousy sentence structure— I am very aware of it) just how important where you went to college was and what fraternity you were a member of in the lives of Southerners but Carroll quickly reminded me rekindling my memories about the genteelness and class consciousness of Southern queens— especially those from Charleston and Savannah. “My wife was a goddamn alligator. And the weather sucked. I like cute Southern boys, the ones that went to their moron dads’ frats. Kappa Sig and ATO. Hot sexy dopes”.
We have a story about a memorial for a drag queen, Harlan Douglas aka Cherry de Vine (I hadn’t heard the name Harlan since I left college but one of my best friends and fraternity brothers [not Kappa Sig or ATO] was named Harlan). “Key West Funeral” had me flipping pages very quickly. We have a story about two Southern sisters on a cruise ship holiday who have to deal with alcoholism, estrangement, and horrible weather. Then we have a look at two newly divorced gay men who pick themselves up and become part of the evenings at the end of the world. Another story is set at an all-male, clothing-optional resort where guys of all ages literally fall into one another’s paths, enjoy themselves as they please, and also regale one another on their views and preconceptions.
Michael Carroll also does not allow us to forget that there was a time that our lives revolved around illness and death. The past may leave us but its mark remains and that mark is often those graves that were left by those who died from AIDS. We became very aware of “our own mortality and the unpredictable nature of life and of survival. It’s about new beginnings and final recognitions.” As you can probably imagine, Carroll is outspoken yet tender, lustful and often enraged, sad and fun at the same time. His writing sparkles and shines as he embraces the lives of his characters and I am quite sure that he based them on people he knows or had seen in Key West giving these stories a relevance since we all know people like the ones we read about here.
I was not expecting to be emotionally touched by these stories but I am glad I was because it gives me one more thing to give Carroll credit for. The stories are microcosms of our lives and who we are with comedy and tragedy combined. I only met Michael once and that was over a coffee a few years ago and I realized that whatever we talked about that day came back in these stories. They are about our lives and how we see them and it takes a certain kind of writer to be able to relate this—- Michael Carroll surpassed any expectations that I had. He is bold and original and he writes what he wants to write about. Using death as his unifier of his stories, it is our last party on the circuit. I daresay that the sadness we feel in reading some of these stories is replaced by a jubilance of being alive.
Newman, Leslea. “Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story”, illustrated (beautifully) by Amy June Bates, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019,
Coming to America
Regarding immigration, we are living I troubled times and we are certainly well aware of that. It seems even more troubling when we remember and realize that many of us are first generation Americans and we grew up with stories about coming to America. If you don’t have a personal story, you borrow “Gittel’s Journey”, the wonderful and sensitive new book by the amazing Leslea Newman. We immediately see how important it is for the young community to understand what the importance of coming to this country is and especially not having to face a wall to get in.
Gittel is nine-years-old when she and her mother leave “The Old Country” to come to America. They do not just leave physically; this is also an emotional journey as they leave friends, possessions and memories. There is no room in a suitcase for memories. Gittel wants to bring Frieda, their goat but her mother tells her, “We cannot bring a goat to America”. But when they reach the boat, Mama is barred from boarding due to an eye infection, and she insists that Gittel continue without her. It is difficult to get through this part of the story with dry eyes and we know what Mama knows— it was not safe to stay in Europe at that time and Gittel knew her mother was right so she put her mother’s Shabbat candlesticks on her bundle and with her little more than what she was wearing and could put in her bundle, she boarded the boat with the address of a cousin in New York City and began her journey to Ellis Island and America. It’s not a new story, we have heard it many times before but today it is especially important. To have Leslea Newman tell it to us is a ”mehayeh”.
The mixed-media images by Bates are washed in yellows and browns and framed by woodblock motifs and give us a sense of the historical context. They beautifully capture emotions. Speaking of emotions, Leslea Newman injects true emotion into the story in the form of fear, excitement and loneliness and with sharp insight she modulates those emotions with both restraint and warmth We can only imagine how difficult it was to write about a young girl leaving everything she knew behind but then she also must leave her mother. Of course things will work out but if we put ourselves in Gittel’s place and try to imagine what she felt, we get an entirely new take on leaving home.
Now I have a selfish story to interject here that also has something to say about restarting life in a new place. Way back when, I had decided to leave America and move to Israel— it had become my Jewish and Zionist responsibility to build the land. I was in the auto with my mother driving to the airport when I could no longer control my tears. My mother looked over at me and asked why I was crying. (At that time, I did not know that I would ever see anyone from my family again and my father and I did not part on good terms). I answered her saying that it was very difficult to say goodbye and she responded with, “Think about how many new hellos you will say” and that beautiful thought is always with me as it was with Gittel as it probably was with Gittel.
There is not a lot of text in the story but every word is a pearl and the design of the book is just gorgeous. The ending is a tear-jerker but one that leaves you feeling complete and emotionally happy. Leslea decided to tell this tale that obviously means a great deal to her. We learn that this is the story of her grandmothers coming to America.
I think it is only fair to say that I am a huge fan of Leslea Newman and if you have read my reviews in the past, you might remember that I mentioned that one of the first books I reviewed was Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk” and it was that experience that caused me to decide to continue reviewing. I wanted to share my excitement about reading our literature. I have reviewed many of Newman’s writings—- she has written seventy books for adults and children and it is my goal to read them all.
For those of you in the Boston area, Leslea will be with my temple, Temple Sinai of Brookline, during the weekend of March 30 and will speak to the entire temple on Friday night as our Rainbow Shabbat speaker and on Sunday she will speak to my adult learning class as part of my series, “Judaism and the LBGT Community: An Exploration”.
Set in rural West Virginia, this is a searing and gritty look at making a break for another life through the use of makeshift families and how the mistakes we’ve made remain with us for long periods. Jodi McCarty went to prison for a mysterious crime we learn about as the story unfolds and she is eager to return to her home in the Appalachian Mountains. Her detour to the south that was supposed to be well-meaning, ends up threatening to keep her from staying on the straight and narrow. Written as a Southern noir, the book follows Jodi as she tries to rebuild her life and when this is hindered by things over which she has no control. Maren writes beautifully and with keen insight and she manages to make us feel compassion for characters even with their flaws and problems. Her descriptions of America’s modern wastelands in this gritty novel are wonderful. Basically this is a novel about two girls on the run and who are actually two damaged women trying to rebuild their lives. We really see what life is like for those who slip through the cracks of society and remain on the margins. Our two women are the type of people we rarely see, much less get to know yet they come across as sympathetic. Jodi went to prison for murdering her older lesbian lover and now free she wants to settle down and grow roots. The story moves from one adventure to another and even though some of it is not so believable, the prose keeps us reading. “Sugar Run” maintains a dual storyline: the first follows Jodi and her girlfriend Paula through drug-fueled poker binges in 1988 and the second follows Jodi’s release from prison in 2007.
A lot happens in this book and the plot covers small town bigotry, the awful destruction brought on by fracking, substance abuse, poverty, the love of land and the shifting of love. It can be a tough at times as it explores place, connection and redemption in the face of the justice system and the struggle to avoid destructive choices.